Writer. Creator. Large mammal.

The Secret Origin of the TRANSFORMERS – Part 1

In 1983, a toy company approached Marvel Comics seeking development of a toy property for comics, animation and other entertainment.  The toys in question were cars and other vehicles that could be opened and unfolded into ROBOTS.  Very cool.

The toy company was KNICKERBOCKER TOYS.  They called their toy property, based on technology licensed from a Japanese company, the “MYSTERIONS.”

Marvel Comics was their second choice as a creative services provider.  They had gone to DC Comics first.  The executive who approached us showed us what DC had created for them.  It was a comic book.  He only had photocopies.  I don’t believe the thing was ever printed.

It was awful.  Apologies to whomever created that thing, but it was pathetic and wrong-headed to an unbelievable degree.  The art was well-drawn, I’ll allow that, but the storytelling was chaotic.  The story, as best one could discern it, was unnecessarily, excessively dark and violent.  The dialogue was peppered with “Hells” and “damns,” and I can’t swear to it almost 30 years later, but I think there was a “bastard” or two in there. 

Need I mention that the primary target audience for toys is ages three through eight?  Yes, sure, boys’ action figures and action toys skew a little higher, but still.  (Aside:  People like us really would warp the average, if we counted.)

Though the DC story was convoluted, when you boiled it down it was vehicle/robots battling each other.  Not much in the way of motivation beyond “good” versus “evil.”  All clichés, all the time.


The Knickerbocker guy told me what they’d paid for this…item.  Top dollar.

He asked if we could do better. 

Our mailroom guys could do better.  Our top executives could do better.  And they were not very sharp.  The execs, I mean.

So, we made a deal and began work.  I wrote the back story and the treatment for the first story.  They loved it.

The plan was for us to publish comics and for our studio, Marvel Productions, to produce a number of animated half-hours—six, I think.  I forget.  We would launch just before the pre-sale of the toys.  Then follow it up in the spring when the initial wave of low price point items shipped.  The usual.

We were asked to come to a meeting at Knickerbocker’s offices out in the wilds of Jersey somewhere.  Publisher Mike Hobson and I were the ranking officers on that excursion.  Somebody else was with us.  I don’t remember who.  DeFalco?  Maybe.  I don’t think so, but…  A licensing person?  Maybe.  I don’t know.  Might have been two people.  

Anyway, we rented a car and off we went.

I can’t run down that trip step by step, but I remember some highlights and lowlights.

We ate a late lunch or dinner at a Ground Round, which was the classiest joint in the area.  I put that first because, relatively speaking, it was a major highlight.

We arrived on time for our meeting, but had to wait for THREE HOURS.  The Knickerbocker execs we were supposed to meet with were “unavoidably detained.”  There was something going on at that office.  People seemed on edge, upset.  We had no idea why.  No one told us anything.

They had a nice reception area.  Comfy seats….

Finally, we were ushered into a room by an assistant to somebody’s assistant and shown the toys.  I’d only seen a few of them up until then.

Finally, we were shown to a large office.  The Knickerbocker people were ashen faced and nervous.  But we had our meeting.  We talked about the launch, the toys and the story.  They didn’t want to talk about elements or the business transaction that were still pending. 

I had the distinct feeling that they were just going through the motions.

Another highlight:  Part of the meeting was a scheduled conference call with Dennis Marks, head of development at Marvel Productions.  For reasons I’ll never understand, the people who ran Marvel Productions until Margaret Loesch took over hated us comics people.  David DePatie, Head of Production, especially.  They thought of us as amateurish morons, and our work as garbage.  MUCH more on that, later.

At any rate, we had provided the studio with my treatment and back story. 

Dennis spoke about what the studio proposed to do with the Mysterions property, which was to completely ignore my work and do something completely different.  And stupid.  With cute, wacky kids and a goofy dog.

That was the only time the Knickerbocker people showed any life.  They told Dennis that they wanted what I had created, not what he was talking about.  They couldn’t understand where he was coming from.  Didn’t he read the treatment?

Dennis was flabbergasted.  Seemed he couldn’t believe that they were taking anything done by the comic book people seriously.  Dennis’s said, exactly:  “I’m completely at sea, here.”  Yes, Dennis, you were, and maybe still are.

That conversation ended in a muddle with Dennis making “we’ll see about this” noises, albeit reasonably politely.  We in the office in Jersey sort of looked at each other after the call ended, in that way that people look at each other after a shared surreal experience.

So, we all shook hands and we Marvel types drove back to New York.  Mike Hobson guessed that some kind of company shakeup was going on.

The next day we learned that, just before our meeting, Hasbro had announced that it was acquiring Knickerbocker.  Shakeup, indeed.

The deal with Knickerbocker fell victim to the takeover by Hasbro.  The Hollywood term for similar events is “turnaround.”  Projects begun by previous administrations are automatically put into turnaround, that is, on hold—usually permanently. 

Here endeth the story of the Mysterions.  

That’s a good break point, but I promised some of the TRANSFORMERS tale, not just the prequel, so I’ll press on for a while.

Some months later, the Hasbro exec who was Marvel’s main contact, Bob Prupis, came to my office.  He pulled a few toy vehicles out of his bag and proceeded to open and unfold them into ROBOTS.

They were bigger and much more complex than the Mysterions.  Different Japanese technology, same general idea.

Hasbro, he said, had the rights to the technology and toys based upon it.  The problem, he said was story.  He said that the Japanese storyline associated with the toys wasn’t useful.  Japanese kids, apparently, don’t require much justification.  Cars become robots, robots become cars.  Well, of course they do.  What do you mean, “why?”

(P.S.  To this day I’ve never read or seen any of the Japanese storyline.)

American kids, he thought would like to know why.  Did I think we could develop this toy concept for comics, animation and other entertainment the way we developed G.I. JOE? 


I didn’t mention the Mysterons, but, hey, if I could do it once, I figured I could do it again.  I had to wonder, though, whether the Knickerbocker Mysterions somehow inspired Hasbro’s acquisition of the Transformers toys and technology.

Following the success of G.I. JOE, these toy developments had become a regular thing.  When possible, I gave the development job to an editor or key freelance creator as a perk.  Developments paid very well. 

I thought that it was time to give Denny O’Neill a crack at one of these, and Denny was always up for making extra money.

I met with Denny and gave him some foundation concepts.  Fed him his lines a little.  I always did that with these toy gigs, because I had been the one meeting with the client, and also I had the most background working with toy companies.  I had learned to think “toyetically,” as they say.  What I proposed was completely different from my Mysterions story.  And, better, I think. 

If the Hasbro people had read my Mysterions treatment, well, I didn’t want them to think I was a one-trick pony.

Denny wanted the job, wanted the dough, but I don’t think his heart was in it.  He had a disdain, I think, for “toy books.”  The Marvel mainstream characters were modern mythology.  The toys were, well, toys.

What Denny delivered was unusable.  Cranked out, pithless stuff.  I paid him anyway.

There’s also a proper way to write these things that’s part pitch piece, part story.  You have to convey the sizzle, write it with some sturm und drang, with Flight of the Valkyries playing in the background.  A few football clichés help.  “He would not be denied!”

So, I wrote the backstory/treatment.  Free.  I usually did such things no extra charge. I considered it part of the Editor in Chief job.  I think my treatment is floating around on the web somewhere.  And, I actually have the original around here in one of the many storage boxes piled up in my living room awaiting sorting.  The cats just love scratching those boxes into cardboard confetti, by the way.  It’s a constant struggle to protect the contents from errant claws….

But I digress.

As stated, the treatment was all new, unrelated to the Mysterions treatment.  And, the only thing of Denny’s I kept, as I recall, was the name of the Autobots’ ship, “Auntie.”  I have become convinced, also, that he named Optimus Prime.  It’s not unlike a name I might come up with, but it’s very much in the style of the erudite Mister O’Neill, full of scope, dignity and power.

By the way, “Transformers,” “Autobots” and “Decepticons” came from Hasbro.

Bob Prupis and the Hasbro troops liked the treatment.

More tomorrow.


And now, a few positive words about Marvel Financial V.P. Barry Kaplan


The Secret Origin of the TRANSFORMERS – Part 2


  1. Interesting read. I worked for KTC from June of 1977 to March of 1980. I started at their Edison, NJ facility as production sec'y. I transferred to the Middlesex NJ facility where I worked for the Assistant to the President, and not too long after was secretary for the quality control manager & supervisors. The "shakeup" I recall was when Time-Warner took over & audited everything.

  2. KevinJGuhl,

    Thanks for sharing that Mysterians pic. I still own an "Air Commander" toy. For years, I've been curious what it is. Even the "M" symbol failed to jog my memory. The sculpt is so weird and I have no recollection where I got it from. I assume it was a birthday gift.

    Can you believe the removable animal let loose from Air Commander's crotch is called "Androgen Defender"? I'm serious. That's all the evidence I need that Mysterions evolved into Mysterians. I can easily picture a robotic hedhehog called Androgen Defender having a potty mouth.

  3. Ostrander is a talented dealer of death, wanton or not.

  4. Dear KevinJGuhl,

    I can't say for sure. It was 30 years ago.

  5. Dear Xavier,

    I'd love to see it.

  6. I'm guessing that the Mysterians toys released by Marchon in 1984 were different than the Mysterions proposed by Knickerbocker Toys.

    Here are pix of the Mysterians: http://www.toplessrobot.com/assets_c/2009/02/mysterians02-thumb-400×232.jpg

    Jim, can you confirm if these are two different toylines?

  7. This stuff is great Jim. Thanks for sharing the story! The Transformers came out right during my most formative years, and were firmly burned into my psyche. You helped make the ten year old me a very happy kid.

  8. Dear kintounkal,

    In eighth grade in 1984, a classmate mentioned a "transformer" on our school campus and I asked him, "What, you mean there's a toy there?" That's how I learned the normal meaning of "transformer."

    Thanks for mentioning the Griffin and Bacal interviews. I still haven't watched all the extras on the Transformers movie DVD yet, so I missed that. I hope to watch it soon.

  9. There's an interview with Tom Griffin and Joe Bacal discussing the thought process behind calling them "Transformers" in the Matrix of Leadership DVD boxset. It's interesting to note Hasbro didn't embrace the name at first. They were concerned the public would assume electricity was needed to change these toys from one mode to the next. 🙂

    A much shorter interview can be seen as an extra for the Transformers animated movie 20th Anniversary Special Edition. This segment has been uploaded to YouTube at:

  10. Dear Nevermore,

    The names TRANSFORMERS etc. came to me by way of Bob Prupis. If you say Griffin-Bacal provided them to Hasbro, I believe it. I didn't know that.

  11. "By the way, 'Transformers,' 'Autobots' and 'Decepticons' came from Hasbro."

    Not quite. These names were coined by Griffin Bacal, the advertising agency working for Hasbro at that time. Joe Bacal's son Jay is said to have introduced the name "Transformers".

    I intereviewed Hasbro's former head of R&D, George Dunsay, a few years ago. Here's his side of the story.

    I find it interesting to see how he still viewed things strictly from a "product" side of things. That was in fact one of the main problems Hasbro had in those early years. They viewed "characters" as easily disposable marketing packages, and were taken by surprise when young fans were upset by the 1986 animated movie, which killed off established characters in an almost cynical manner to make room for new "product".

    During the interview, Dunsay (who showed a surprisingly sharp recollection of details) still showed his incapability of understanding that it was mainly the characters that sold the Transformers brand to kids, not the products. (Although, of course, ultimately both had to be good for the brand as a whole to have lasting power. There's a reason why Transformers is still successful today, whereas GoBots have become a footnote in history.)

    There's also the aspect of the cartoon, which occasionally flat out ignored aspects of the mythos as developed by Marvel. I'm looking at you, "janitor of Cybertron" Shockwave. Having read your recollection of the cartoon folks' attitude to you comic guys, I don't find it hard to see why. There's also one of the cartoon's writers (Donald F. Glut) who has repeatedly shown a very cynical, dismissive attitude when looking back at his work on the show. (I also happen to find his episodes to be among the worst, coincidentally enough.)

  12. BahGlenn,

    I had no idea any Mysterion toys were relased. I assume they didn't get much penetration into the market before the Hasbro takeover.

    Can we get a picture? Pretty pretty please? 🙂

    The "boxes/sphere" gimmick sounds like Bandai's Tamagoras (released as Meteorbs in the HE-MAN line, of all places) or Takara's Microchange Meteor Robos (not used in TRANSFORMERS until BEAST WARS).


    Jim, thanks again for all this information. I'm a lot more excited waiting for installments on the "Secret Origin" and Marvel corruption than I am for the new film.

  13. Wow, very interesting stuff! I actually own one of the Mysterions toys, they came out when I was around 4 or 5 I think. I don't remember much about them, other then the majority of the toys turned from boxes/spheres into robots. The packaging for the toy I remember being very action-packed, with robots flying through the air and a huge battle taking place in the background. I have a black sphere that opens up into a evil looking robot and he is missing a foot. I think the "M" is still present on his chest albeit very faded. I wanted to get more as a kid, but I think one store had them locally and I never got to get any others.

  14. Dear Xavier,

    Thanks for the preview of Team America #12! I found that panel in my copy. I even ordered the non-Jim issues yesterday and am looking forward to reading the whole series.

    According to this site, the Scarce interviews with Jim were in #46-47. I would be interested in seeing them so I can see what Jim sounds like in French. 🙂 Do you have a transcript of the untranslated interview?

  15. tec

    Wow fantastic read. Thanks for shareing with this info and some info from the Transfomers Vault book the mysteries of the Transformer mythos are comeing to light

  16. Another nod towards Jim's treatment can be found in Transformers ongoing #5 ("Enemies of the System") from IDW Publishing. This issue started with a somber conversation on the nature of leadership between Spike & Optimus Prime (who didn't have much history together at this point in IDW continuity). Afterwards, Spike leaves Skywatch headquarters for a drive in a white Lamborghini Countach vehicle that used to be known as Breakdown.

    Spike wonders if he took off the suppressor preventing this Stunticon from doing anything, would he "talk like Abraham Lincoln" too. Most readers realize the answer is "No". Breakdown & Optimus Prime are nothing alike. It's a memorable moment and Mike Costa is the first person to establish in print that Optimus Prime has "the personality of an Abraham Lincoln" just as Jim described.

  17. Marc: I bet you're gonna laugh a lot. My all time favorite is this amazing panel:

    Jim/Jay: I could provide you with scans of the long running interview (in French) that we did of Jim in SCARCE 44-45 if it interest you or the readers of this blog.

  18. OMG this is awesome O.O

  19. Dear Xavier,

    I just bought the issues of Team America that Jim worked on. Although I doubt that has a lot of fans, the story behind the story might be fun to read.

  20. This is all wonderfully fascinating. If I may, I agree with Chuck. I'd love to get similar insight on the G.I. JOE property coming to Marvel if you ever have time and feel like telling that story.

  21. Transformers? So there's still hope you will one day tell the fantastic tale of the genese, fall and fall of Team America! 🙂 (I4ll prepare the popcorn for sure 🙂 ).

  22. Wow.

    That's the third different name I've seen for Sparkplug. Interesting to see 'Spike' crossed out there. I definitely prefer 'Buster'.

  23. Here's a link to the treatment:

    I just realized something… you don't have corrupt freelancers to deal with any more, but you DO have the cats. Talk about trickeration. lol.

  24. Jim,

    Heh heh, my apologies. 😉

    But what you did is thoroughly ingrained in me, and I thank you wholeheartedly for the fantastic story you provided which has been a major part of my life, and got me into comics in the first place.

    Gushing over. 🙂

  25. 3 points:

    1) You should've been inducted into the Transformer Hall of Fame before Bay.

    2) I'd love to know what the Mysterions were

    3) You need to write about GI Joe.

  26. Dear Ian,


  27. Dear Professor Prupis,

    Wow! Nice to meet you, albeit electronically. I totally agree about your father.

  28. Never got into the transformer scene. I was in HS when these doohickeys came out and past the toy phase. THIS was the most interesting thing transformer related I have ever seen. (aside from the Megan Fox movie)

    I did enjoy the Star Wars adaptions. These were fun. Any stories on these?

  29. On the subject of Optimus Prime's name, Matthew Karpowich conducted a lengthy interview with Bob Budiansky back in 2004. At one point, Matthew said "One thing that set the Transformers apart from other toylines in the '80s was its use of Latinate names – Optimus Prime, Ultra Magnus, Fortress Maximus, and Omega Supreme spring to mind. Was this an aesthetic decision on your part, or due to a mandate from Hasbro?"

    Bob replied "Give Denny O'Neil credit for that. He started it by naming Optimus Prime. Generally, Hasbro wanted more literal names for most of the toys, but for some of the really major toys, they preferred names with more grandeur to them, so they pushed me to follow in the vein of Op Prime on those. I think I named Fortress Maximus, and possibly Omega Supreme."

  30. Fascinating information, Jim! I'd never heard about the background with "Mysterions" before. Personally, I think the reason there have been few US toy properties with the long term success of Transformers or GI Joe is due to the direct contributions of Marvel back in the Eighties. Today, such "toy stories" are overseen by marketing people and widget makers who have never had to spin fantasy tales for a living, and their work often lacks resonance.

    @Monzo – Bryce Malek mentioned the original CBS pitch at BotCon 1998 – neat to have additional clarification!

  31. No mention of Sunbow either.

  32. Hmm. So the "wacky kids and a dog" aspect is an interesting tie-in to this:


    Marvel Productions / CBS

    Animated Series Bible

    A Robot's Best Friend Is His Dog (Pilot)

    That really sounds like part of the Mysterions set-up. A recycled pitch, perhaps? I've never heard of Transformers ever being planned for CBS, though.

  33. Truly incredible! What are the chances that you'd invite all of us fanboys over one day, Jim and let us ransack the cardboard boxes? 🙂

    I haven't commented in a while, but I, like many others, read every one of these posts and very much enjoy them. Thanks.

  34. Bob Prupis is one cool guy. He really had a handle on the boys toys market and understood the role of story for boys toys.
    How do I know he's one cool guy? He's my dad!

  35. I can understand that feeling. I admit a few of the details in IDW continuity bug me like Skywarp being a purple Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor aircraft instead of a black McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle jet. I assume Transformers #81 would depict Bumblebee as a Volkswagen beetle again which would make me happy. Since I didn't copy and paste the link to Guido Guidi's art correctly, I'll try one ore time:

  36. kintounkal,

    Cheers for the link, much appreciated. I've read Infiltration and Escalation, all of the Spotlights and most of the other titles, and I do love the IDW stuff in general, but cannot help feeling that 'my' Transformers needs revisiting.

  37. Ian,

    I wholeheartedly support that petition. The good news is the relaunch already appears to be in the works. On Wednesday, Guido Guidi posted some illustrations on Deviantart trying to emulate the feel of mid-80 TF comics. You can check them out at

    Notice his coloring test used a panel from 'All Hail Megatron' featuring Starscream, Thundercracker, and Skywarp. That's a big hint toward him being the artist for Transformers #81. As readers of the ongoing Transformers title written by Mike Costa already know, it's unlikely the seekers will fight alongside each other anymore. As eager as I am to see the Marvel continuity return, I like the IDW material way better. In my opinion, a Transformers fan who's never read Infiltration or Escalation is doing himself the same disservice as a Batman fan who won't try the Dark Knight Returns.

  38. Dear kintounkal,

    Right. The Ark was the ship, Auntie the computer. You are correct. Thanks. I had it in my mind that Auntie was the voice of the ship. Sort of.

  39. Speaking of which, were the Witwickys your creation/suggestion, Bob's or someone else's?

  40. Oh yeah, Firestar's dog. I have to agree there. The cute sidekick character is something that the (original) Transformers luckily managed to avoid (if you don't count the Autobots' pet Witwickys), but was like a virus in almost every one of its contemporaries.

    I always felt that Transformers (the comic) had an intelligent basis, was non-patronising and was definitely engaging. Like MJK, I'm still very much a (ahem) G1 fan.

    One thing of interest for anyone who wants the original continuity to resume, Simon Furman stated recently that he would like to continue the original Marvel continuity again from #81, bypassing the G2 era and ignoring all else. IDW said that they would give the idea some thought if the petition reached 10,000. That'd be this petition:


    Currently on 2628 signatures. The Marvel continuity, based on what Jim has written about here, is the only thing I was ever interested in, and, at the age of 34, still am. Pretty good legs for 'just' a toy title.

  41. Incidentally, the Autobot starship was officially labelled the Ark in the first Transformers comic. However, Simon Furman made use of the name provided by Denny in Transformers UK #19 ("Raiders of the Last Ark" Part 2). The cover introduced Auntie as as "a force to be reckoned with!" She was the Ark's automated defences until the crash into Mount St. Hilary damaged Auntie's memory of the Cybertronian civil war.

    She magnetized both factions to the Ark walls with the intent of eradicating whoever she believed to be in the wrong. Since Auntie was obviously portrayed as female, she was sort of an anomaly in 1985. Before Elita One, Chromia, Firestar, and Moonracer first appeared, Hasbro mentioned to Bob Budiansky that Transformers weren't supposed to have genders.

  42. Thank you so much for posting this Jim!! I'm a huge fan of the work both Marvel US and Marvel UK produced on the Transformers… and learning about how it all came to be is fantastic. Thank you! :o)

  43. MJK

    Awesome. I'm 32 and take almost no interest in any of the current forms of the property, but I still have a soft spot for good old 1980s Transformers.

    Though I may actually like this bit most of all: "I actually have the original around here in one of the many storage boxes piled up in my living room awaiting sorting. The cats just love scratching those boxes into cardboard confetti, by the way." There's something endearingly humble, here.

  44. I read in an interview on the Spider Friends web site Dennis Marks said he came up with the dog for Firestar in the Spidey & Friends cartoon. That ridiculous dog was one of the things that made that cartoon unwatchable for me.

    "My wife had had a Llhasa Apso, a rather new breed in the States at the time. I told Mickey Dwyer about the Llhasa being the Temple Lion Dog of Tibet, and, because this was right in the middle of the feminist revolution, I said we could call the dog "Miz Lion.""

  45. Dear Jim,

    Like Ian, I had no idea about the Knickerbocker acquistion or the Mysterions. The big question on my mind is, what were the Mysterions based on? "[C]ars and other vehicles that could be opened and unfolded into ROBOTS" that were smaller than the Transformers sounds like Bandai's Machine Robo line, later imported to the US by Tonka as the Gobots.

    "The art was well-drawn, I’ll allow that, but the storytelling was chaotic" and the rest sounds like a description of a generic modern superhero comic book! That DC thing was ahead of its time! It cracks me up, thinking that Knickerbocker, maker of the Holly Hobbie doll, would be associated with something "dark and violent." Extreeeeme, as a later generation might put it.

    I would guess that the number of animated half-hours for Mysterions would be five, like the Monday through Friday GI Joe miniseries which aired in 1983.

    The "cute, wacky kids and a goofy dog" Mysterions proposal made me laugh. I can't stand patronizing kids' entertainment. Respect the audience!

    "They told Dennis that they wanted what I had created, not what he was talking about" reminds me of what Phil Meyer said about your Night of Doom a few years later: "Joe, we like this one."

    As for the Japanese storylines associated with the Transformers before they became the Transformers, I can assure you they were detailed with logic behind the transformations: e.g., the transforming cassette tapes and so on were part of a boy's secret arsenal against an alien invasion. And the transforming cars were supposed to fool alien invaders who would otherwise shoot at obvious military vehicles. I speak and read Japanese, and I spent my youth reading the backstories in the catalogs for Takara's Microman and Diaclone lines. These backstories were expanded upon in spinoff manga: e.g., Yoshihiro Moritou's Microman which ran in Japan's TV Magazine for years. It would have been easy to fuse the backstories and adapt this existing material for the US market. (I spent 7th and 8th grade figuring out how to do that!) But for whatever reason, Hasbro didn't like the Japanese backstories, and the Transformers backstory you created has endured 27 years, eclipsing the originals even in Japan itself.

    Millions of boys around the world played with Transformers, unaware of the roles that you, Denny O'Neil, and Bob Budiansky played in their creation. That's not right. Moreover, you guys should be getting royalties. Thank you for writing this series. Anyone who Googles "Transformers" and "origin" could come here to learn about the men behind the myth.

    I predict that this thread will make the ROM thread look short once Transformers fan sites link to your posts.

  46. Good stuff.

  47. I said it before and I'll say it again, Jim. Your posts are nuggets of Comic-Book History Gold!
    Thank you thank you!!

  48. Amazing read, Mr. Shooter! Thanks for sharing that story – can't wait for part II.

  49. Fantastic stuff; I confess, this is the first time I'd ever heard of the toy company that Hasbro acquired, or the Mysterions toyline. Just goes to show that after 27 years, I'm still learning stuff about the franchise I fell in love with. Looking forward to the next bit. 🙂

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